Nordic Warrior wins the first-ever Hong Kong Jockey Club race staged at Conghua Racetrack in Mainland China. Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Jockey Club
A big week of international racing featured Winx and some stars of the future in Australia, a promising 4-year-old Scat Daddy colt in Japan and a potentially momentous day in Mainland China.
Back in North America, there was plenty of action in addition to the Triple Crown preps. Among the big doings was another win by Bricks and Mortar, who bids fair to provide some leadership in the turf division.
Starting with Winx:
In her penultimate race, the mighty mare Winx shrugged off a heavy track, powered home as she pleased and won the Group 1 George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill by 3 1/2 lengths. Brutal was second and it was another 3 lengths to Dreamforce.
Winx took the George Ryder for the fourth time, adding that "four-peat" to similar streaks in the Cox Plate and the Chipping Norton Stakes. It was her 32nd straight victory overall.
Although she continues to thrive on the competition, her ownership group plans to call it a career for the Street Cry mare after her next race, the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes next month at Randwick.
"When I asked her to stretch, she responded, and you could hear the crowd roar," Winx's jockey, Hugh Bowman, said. "The excitement and the emotion, she responds to that as well as anything else, and once again I am just so proud of her and proud to be a part of it.
"I would never have imagined in those days growing up that I would be riding one of the greatest horses that has ever lived," Bowman added.
Godolphin blue finished 1-2-3 in Saturday's Group 1 AUS$3.5 million Golden Slipper Stakes at Rosehill, continuing the Dubai-based conglomerate's domination -- save Winx -- of top-level racing Down Under. Kiamichi, a Sidestep filly, led the parade, followed a length by her stablemate in James Cummings' barn, Microphone. Lyre, the Blue Diamond Stakes winner, finished third for her conditioner, Anthony Freedman. Kiamichi won her way into the race with a victory seven days earlier in the Magic Night stakes.
Godolphin's other successes this season include Best Solution in the Caulfield Cup and Cross Counter in the Melbourne Cup. It would be four-for-the Big Four but for Winx's victory over runnerup Benbatl in the Cox Plate.
Mr Melody squeezed through an opening between rivals at mid-stretch in Sunday's Grade 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse and rallied to win by 1/2 length over 100-1 shot Seiun Kosei. Shonan Anthem was third. The favorite, Danon Smash, finished fourth and Mozu Superflare, the second-favorite, faded badly after leading into the stretch, finishing 15th.
Mr Melody, a Kentucky-bred colt by Scat Daddy, ran 1,200 meters on firm turf in 1:07.3.
Yuichi Fukunaga rode for trainer Hideaki Fujiwara and owner Green Fields Co. Ltd.
"He was in good form and I was able to race him as planned," Fukunaga said. "I tried to position him toward the front and was able to find an open space in the lane at the right timing.
"He's a capable horse, being able to handle his first Grade 1, 1,200-meter race on turf with a win. There are many options for him going forward as he can also cover 1,400 meters as well as dirt surface," Fukunaga added.
Mr Melody scored his first Grade 1 win in his second try at the top level. He posted a win and two seconds from three starts as a juvenile, all on the dirt, and got home seventh in a Grade 3 event at Hanshin in his only previous start this year.
Five relatively minor races staged without a hitch Saturday at the Hong Kong Jockey Club Conghua Racetrack in Mainland China were an immediate success by any measure and could have a profound long-term effect on the sport.
The "Demonstration Race Day" was the first official race card ever run by the HKJC at its spanking new, US$500 million training, rehab and now racing facility about 4 hours' drive north of Hong Kong.
A mist shrouded the surrounding mountaintops throughout the day, giving way late in the afternoon to a drenching rain. But even that was not sufficient to dampen the enthusiasm of Club officials about their accomplishment.
"This is an historic moment ... a great success. We are really pleased," said Hong Kong Jockey Club CEO Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges. "This has been a long journey but we are very happy with the outcome."
The race day fulfilled the HKJC community commitment to the Conghua area and Guangdong Province. Some 3,000 of the 3,500 spectators who braved the weather were residents of the province, many of them first-time racegoers. More important for future consideration, the races also were attended by the mayor of Conghua, the governor of Guangdong Province, officials from Beijing and Carrie Lam, chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
All of them lauded the spirit of intergovernmental cooperation and the promise to open an era of world-class equine sports in the Greater Bay Area, incorporating the new site, much of southeastern China, Hong Kong and Macau.
Lam pledged the cooperation of the Hong Kong government to "ensure the development of world-class, equine-related professionals in the Mainland and the continuing growth of equine sports in the country."
The racing was conducted without wagering, in accord with Chinese Mainland law and HKJC officials emphasized they are not advocating the significant policy change that would be required to establish horse race betting on the Mainland.
Engelbrecht-Bresges addressed the issue only when asked, and then repeatedly said the Club is pursuing racing as sport -- not advocating for gambling on it.
Left unsaid was the vast potential for government and charitable revenue that would flow from even a modest commercial racing industry on the Mainland. The HKJC, through race and sports wagering, has become the largest taxpayer and largest charitable institution in Hong Kong and its not-for-profit model would fit the Mainland perfectly.
For now, "It's not about gambling," Engelbrecht-Bresges said. "It's about the sport. It cannot be perceived as pushing gambling. It's not for us to push policy."
"The good news," he added, "is that there is a policy now that horse racing is permitted. The rest, I am not someone who can predict the future."
As to the races themselves: Trainer Richard Gibson and jockey Matthew Chadwick did the honors in the first-ever race at Conghua as Nordic Warrior, a 4-year-old Dutch Art gelding, split rivals in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths. The five races were won by five different trainers. Chad Schofield rode two winners.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Bricks and Mortar looks poised to fill a void at the top of the U.S. turf ranks after a hard-won victory over Markitoff in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds. The win backed up a victory in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park and the lightly-raced, 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway now has seven wins from nine career starts.
Markitoff, a 62-1 long shot, made the early going over the firm turf, with Bricks and Mortar content to track in second. The two hooked up in a stretch-long battle, with Bricks and Mortar, Irad Ortiz Jr., prevailing a nose. Synchrony was third. Bricks and Mortar ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.44.
"He needs to have a target, so we didn't want to go to the lead," Ortiz said. "I tried to settle him without fighting him too much even though we were walking. I knew (Markitoff) was going to have something, and I knew we were going slow, so I just let him walk and kept close to him as a target."
Bricks and Mortar will have every chance to make his mark in the division. The Muniz win carries automatic entry options for the Old Forester Turf Classic and the Arlington Million, Grade I events at other Churchill Downs Inc. tracks.
Gray Attempt led gate to wire in Saturday's $125,000 Gazebo Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, winning off by 3 1/4 lengths as the favorite. Hidden Ruler and Six Shooter, only a nose apart, filled the trifecta slots. Gray Attempt, a Graydar Colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.72 with Jon Court up.
Gray Attempt won the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds and the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn before finishing 11th in the Grade III Southwest Stakes in his previous start.
Gladiator King was allowed to lope along on the lead at a good clip in Saturday's $100,000 Hutcheson Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and was long gone by the time the odds-on favorite, Federal Case, started trying to reel him in. At the line, it was Gladiator King by 4 lengths over Federal Case with Topper T and In the Loop completing the order of finish. Gladiator King, a Curlin colt out of a Hennessey mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.88 under Leonel Reyes.
Gladiator King was shortening up after finishing a fading last of 11 in the 1 1/16-miles Grade II Fountain of Youth.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Workaholic, the longest shot in the field, was along in the final yards of Saturday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct, catching the favorite, Miss Imperial, for a 3/4-length victory. The pacesetter, Stonesintheroad, tired to finish third, another 4 lengths back. Workaholic, a Sky Mesa filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:13.19 under Cory Orm. She has hit the board in eight of 10 career starts and finished second in the Cincinnati Trophy on the Turfway Park all-weather course two starts back.
"She's very game. I don't think I've had any horse, with the exception of Runhappy, that runs as hard as this little filly runs every time," said trainer Laura Wohlers, who scored her first stakes win since Runhappy's victory in the 2015 Grade 1 Malibu at Santa Anita, "I was going to be happy if she hit the board, but when she got up there and took the lead, it put tears in my eyes. I'm just so proud of her."
Miss Marcela took charge late to post a 20-1 upset victory in Saturday's $75,000 Any Limit Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park. The Bodemeister filly, with Emisael Jaramillo riding, drew off down the lane to defeat Brunette Princess by 3 lengths with the favorite, Smoken Deb, another 3 lengths back in third. Miss Marcela finished 6 furlongs in 1:12.49.
Core Beliefs rallied four-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II New Orleans Handicap and edged clear, winning by 3/4 length over Silver Dust. Lone Sailor was another 3/4 length back in third and the favorite, Copper Bullet, settled for fifth, lacking any late kick. Core Beliefs, a 4-year-old Quality Road colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.36 with Florent Geroux up for trainer Peter Eurton.
Core Beliefs was third behind Justify and Bolt d'Oro in last year's Santa Anita Derby, then second in the Grade III Peter Pan at Belmont and won the Grade II Ohio Derby. He finished well up the track in the Grade I Haskell and the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby and had been idle since last Sept. 22.
"I had horse. I was just hoping he'd keep his focus," said Geroux, who struggled to keep Core Beliefs on a straight course through the stretch. "That was my only concern, not whether we had enough horse, but keeping him busy and keeping him focused to the wire. He was trying to wander around and I just needed to keep him occupied."
Around the ovals:
Hoonani Road, the odds-on favorite, seized the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Nodouble Breeders' Stakes for Arkansas-breds and won off by 2 1/2 lengths over Beebop Shoes. Bandit Point was third. Hoonani Road, a 4-year-old Jonesboro gelding, reported in 1:10.11 with Ricardo Santana Jr. riding.
Shang, the 1-5 favorite, drew off in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Derby for state-bred 3-year-olds and won by 8 3/4 lengths, eased up late by jockey Jose Ortiz. Jus Lively rallied sharply from last to beat the others with Silver King third, another 1 3/4 lengths adrift. Shang, a Shanghai Bobby colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.62.
Fugitive Lady had to battle for the lead throughout Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Oaks for Louisiana-breds, survived a roughly run race and still came out on top. Cicada's Song was second, 1 1/2 lengths back of the winner and 3/4 length in front of Crescentcitypretty. The odds-on favorite, Midnight Fantasy, faded to finish fourth after enduring some of bumping. Fugitive Lady, a daughter of Guilt Trip, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:44.33 with Jack Gilligan up.
Beau Recall was up late to outfinish Sensitive in Saturday's $75,000 New Orleans Ladies Stakes on the turf, winning by 1/2 length. Vagabond Princess finished third. Beau Recall, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare by Sir Prancealot, finished 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:42.11 for jockey Jose Ortiz.
Win Lion Win overcame some traffic problems to win Saturday's $60,000 Costa Rising Stakes for Louisiana-breds by a neck over the favorite, Monte Man. Win Lion Win, an 8-year-old Lion Tamer gelding, took a daylight lead in the stretch and just lasted. With Kevin Smith up, he finished 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.68, scoring his second straight win for trainer Allison Ramsay-Banks.
Totally Obsessed was totally in control in Saturday's $75,000 Southern Park Stakes for 3-year-old, Ohio-bred fillies. The Tale of Ekati miss was quickly on the lead for jockey Luis Quinones and extended the advantage to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Pearls In Charge and Dolly Dear filled out the trifecta. Totally Obsessed ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.67.